Sinclair Ferguson examines 2 Corinthians 5 at the Leadership Conference, Vespers Service.
Sinclair Ferguson examines 2 Corinthians 5 at the Leadership Conference, Vespers Service.
This session considers the relationship between law and gospel in the Christian life. It considers how our understanding of law and gospel affects our approach to evangelism, sanctification, and our understanding of God Himself.
The aftermath of a conversation can change the way we later think of its significance.
My friend — a younger minister — sat down with me at the end of a conference in his church and said: “Before we retire tonight, just take me through the steps that are involved in helping someone mortify sin.” We sat talking about this for a little longer and then went to bed, hopefully he was feeling as blessed as I did by our conversation. I still wonder whether he was asking his question as a pastor or simply for himself — or both.
How would you best answer his question? The first thing to do is: Turn to the Scriptures. Yes, turn to John Owen (never a bad idea!), or to some other counselor dead or alive. But remember that we have not been left only to good human resources in this area. We need to be taught from “the mouth of God” so that the principles we are learning to apply carry with them both the authority of God and the promise of God to make them work.
Several passages come to mind for study: Romans 8:13; Romans 13:8–14 (Augustine’s text); 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1; Ephesians 4:17–5:21; Colossians 3:1–17; 1 Peter 4:1–11; 1 John 2:28–3:11. Significantly, only two of these passages contain the verb “mortify” (“put to death”). Equally significantly, the context of each of these passages is broader than the single exhortation to put sin to death. As we shall see, this is an observation that turns out to be of considerable importance.
Of these passages, Colossians 3:1–17 is probably the best place for us to begin.
At a PGA Tour tournament in October 2015, Ben Crane disqualified himself after completing his second round. He did so at considerable financial cost. No matter—Crane believed the personal cost of not doing it would be greater (encouraged by a devotional article he had read that morning by Davis Love III, the distinguished former Ryder Cup captain).
Crane realized he had broken one of the more recondite rules of golf. If I followed the story rightly, while in a hazard looking for his ball, he leaned his club on a stone. He abandoned the ball, took the requisite penalty for doing so, played on, and finished his round. He would have made the Friday night cut comfortably; a very successful weekend financially beckoned. Then Ben Crane thought: “Should I have included a penalty for grounding my club in a hazard?” Sure enough (Rule 13.4a). So he disqualified himself.
(Got it? Hopefully, no readers will lie awake tonight now knowing the trophy was won illegally.)
Crane has been widely praised for his action. No avalanche of spiteful or demeaning attacks on cyberspace or hate mail for being narrow-minded. All honor to him. Intriguingly, no one seems to have said or written, “Ben Crane is such a legalist.”
No, we are not starting a new sports column this month. But how odd it is to see so much praise for his detailed attention to the rules of golf, and yet the opposite when it comes to the rules of life, the (much more straightforward) law of God, even in the church.
There is a problem somewhere.
Neither Jesus nor Paul had a problem with the law. Paul wrote that his gospel of grace upholds and establishes the law (Rom. 3:31)—even God’s laws in their negative form, since the “grace of God . . . teaches us to say ‘No’” (Titus 2:11–12NIV). And remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17–19? Our attitude to the law is a litmus test of our relationship to the kingdom of God.
So what is the problem? The real problem is that we do not understand grace. If we did, we would also realize why John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” could write, “Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes.”
There is a deep issue here. In Scripture, the person who understands grace loves law. (Incidentally, mere polemics against antinomianism can never produce this.)
Think again of Ben Crane. Why keep the complex rules of golf? Because you love the game. Something similar, but greater, is true of the believer. Love the Lord, and we will love His law—because it is His. All is rooted in this beautiful biblical simplicity.
Think of it in terms of three men and the three “stages” or “epochs” they represent: Adam, Moses, and Jesus.
At creation, God gave commandments. They expressed His will. And since He is a good, wise, loving, and generous God, His commandments are always for our best. He wants to be a Father to us.
As soon as God created man and woman as His image (Gen. 1:26–28—a hugely significant statement), He gave them statutes to follow (v. 29). The context here makes clear the rationale: He is Lord; they are His image. He made them to reflect Him. He is the cosmic Overlord, and they are the earthly under-lords. His goal is their mutual enjoyment of one another and creation in a communion of life (1:26–2:3). So, He has given them a start—a garden in Eden (2:7). He wants them to extend that garden to the ends of the earth, and to enjoy it as miniature creators, images imitating the great original Creator (1:28–29).
God’s creation commands then had in view our reflecting His image and glory. His image-bearers are made to be like Him. In one form or another, all divine commands have this principle enshrined in them: “You are my image and likeness. Be like me!” This is reflected in His command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
Implied here is that God’s image-bearers are created, hardwired as it were, to reflect Him. Yes, there are external laws given to them, but those laws simply provide specific applications of the “laws” inbuilt in the divine image, laws that are already on the conscience.
“We all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us one and the same Son, the self-same perfect in Godhead, the self-same perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man … acknowledged in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably … the properties of each nature being preserved.”
So wrote the church fathers in the Definition of Chalcedon in AD 451. But even if they spoke “unanimously,” their doctrine of Christ sounds so complex. Does it really matter?
Given the sacrifices they made to describe Christ rightly, one can imagine that if these Christians were present at a group Bible study on Philippians 2:5-11, they might well say to us, “From what we have heard, it never mattered more.”
Imagine the discussion on “Though he was in the form of God … emptied himself” (Phil. 2:6-7, RSV). Says one: “It means Jesus became a man for a time and then went back to being God afterwards.” “No,” says another, “He only emptied himself of His divine attributes and then He took them up again.” “Surely,” says another (not pausing to reflect on the miracles of Moses, Elijah, or the Apostles), “He mixed humanity with His deity—isn’t that how He was able to do miracles?”
Does it really matter if those views are wrong, indeed heretical, so long as we know that Jesus saves and we witness to others about Him? After all, the important thing is that we preach the gospel.
But that is precisely the point—Jesus Christ Himself is the gospel. Like loose threads in a tapestry—pull on any of these views, and the entire gospel will unravel. If the Christ we trust and preach is not qualified to save us, we have a false Christ.
Reflect for a moment on the descriptions of Christ above. If at any point He ceased to be all that He is as God, the cosmos would disintegrate—for He is the One who upholds the universe by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3). If He were a mixture of deity and humanity, then He would not be truly or fully human, and therefore would no longer be one of us and able to act as our representative and substitute. He could neither save sinners nor succor saints. This is why Hebrews emphasizes that Christ possesses a humanity identical to ours, apart from sin. No mixing or confusing here.
Most of us are sticklers for clearly describing anything we love, be it science, computing, sports, business, or family life. Should we be indifferent to how we think and speak about our Savior and Lord?
This is why the church fathers, and later the Westminster divines, stressed that God’s Son ever remained “of one substance, and equal with the Father” and yet, in the incarnation, took “upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and infirmities thereof, yet without sin… . So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion” (WCF 8.2).
What makes this statement so impressive is that it safeguards the mystery of the incarnation while carefully describing its reality. The Son’s two natures are not united to each other, but they are united in His one person. So in everything He did, He acted appropriately in terms of His deity or His humanity, one divine person exercising the powers of each nature in its own proper sphere.
This, then, underscores the value of the church’s creeds. They were written by men who had thought more deeply and often suffered more grievously than we do. They spoke out of a deep love for Christ and His people, concerned for a lost world. Their testimony helps us in three ways:
Does it really matter? In light of the sacrifices our forefathers made in order to articulate the grandeur of the person of our Savior and what Christ had to be in order to save us, you bet it matters.